“Why are they still bothering with paperbacks?” This came from a coffee-shop acquaintance when he heard my book was soon to come out in paperback, nine months after its hardcover release. “Anyone who wants it half price already bought it on ebook, or Amazon.”
Interestingly, his point wasn’t the usual hardcovers-are-dead-long-live-the-hardcover knell. To his mind, what was the use of a second, cheaper paper version anymore, when anyone who wanted it cheaply had already been able to get it in so many different ways?
I would have taken issue with his foregone conclusion about the domination of ebooks over paper, but I didn’t want to spend my babysitting time down that rabbit hole. But he did get me thinking about the role of the paperback relaunch these days, and how publishers go about getting attention for this third version of a novel — fourth, if you count audiobooks.
I did what I usually do when I’m puzzling through something, which is to go back to my journalism-school days and report on it. Judging by the number of writers who asked me to share what I heard, there are a good number of novelists who don’t quite know what to do with their paperbacks, either.
Here’s what I learned, after a month of talking to editors, literary agents, publishers, and other authors: A paperback isn’t just a cheaper version of the book anymore. It’s a makeover. A facelift. And for some, a second shot.
About ebooks. How much are they really cutting into print, both paperbacks and hardcovers? Putting aside the hype and the crystal ball, how do the numbers really look?
The annual Bookstats Report from the Association of American Publishers (AAP), which collects data from 1,977 publishers, is one of the most reliable measures. In the last full report — which came out July 2012 — ebooks outsold hardcovers for the first time, representing $282.3 million in sales (up 28.1%), compared to adult hardcover ($229.6 million, up 2.7%). But not paperback — which, while down 10.5%, still represented $299.8 million in sales. The next report comes out this July, and it remains to be seen whether ebook sales will exceed paper. Monthly stat-shots put out by the AAP since the last annual report show trade paperbacks up, but the group’s spokesperson cautioned against drawing conclusions from interim reports rather than year-end numbers.
Numbers aside, do we need to defend whether the paperback-following-hardcover still has relevance?
“I think that as opposed to a re-release being less important, it’s more than ever important because it gives a book a second chance with a new cover and lower cost, plus you can use all the great reviews the hardcover got,” says MJ Rose, owner of the book marketing firm Authorbuzz, as well as a bestselling author of novels including The Book of Lost Fragrances. “So many books sell 2,000 or 3,000 copies in hardcover and high-priced ebooks, but take off when they get a second wind from trade paperback and their e-book prices drop.”
What about from readers’ perspectives? Is there something unique about the paperback format that still appeals?
I put the question to booksellers, though of course as bricks-and-mortar sellers, it’s natural that they would have a bias toward paper. Yet the question isn’t paper versus digital: it’s whether they are observing interest in a paper book can be renewed after it has already been out for nine months to a year, and already available at the lower price, electronically.
“Many people still want the portability of a lighter paper copy,” said Deb Sundin, manager of Wellesley Books in Wellesley, MA. “They come in before vacation and ask, ‘What’s new in paper?’ ”
“Not everyone e-reads,” says Nathan Dunbar, a manager at Barnes & Noble in Skokie, IL. “Many customers tell us they’ll wait for the paperback savings. Also, more customers will casually pick up the paperback over hardcover.”
Then there’s the issue of what a new cover can do. “For a lot of customers the paperback is like they’re seeing it for the first time,” says Mary Cotton, owner of Newtonville Books in Newtonvillle, MA. “It gives me an excuse to point it out to people again as something fresh and new, especially if it has a new cover.”
A look at a paperback’s redesign tells you a thing or two about the publisher’s mindset: namely, whether or not the house believes the book has reached its intended audience, and whether there’s another audience yet to reach. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s Rorschach. Hardcovers with muted illustrations morph into pop art, and vice versa. Geometric-patterned book covers are redesigned with nature imagery; nature imagery in hardcover becomes photography of women and children in the paperback. Meg Wolitzer, on a panel about the positioning of women authors at the recent AWP conference, drew knowing laughter for a reference to the ubiquitous covers with girls in a field or women in water. Whether or not publishers want to scream book club, they at least want to whisper it.
“It seems that almost every book these days gets a new cover for the paperback. It’s almost as if they’re doing two different books for two different audiences, with the paperback becoming the ‘book club book,’” says Melanie Benjamin, author of The Aviator’s Wife. Benjamin watched the covers of her previous books, including Mrs. Tom Thumb and Alice I Have Been, change from hardcovers that were “beautiful, and a bit brooding” to versions that were “more colorful, more whimsical.”
A mood makeover is no accident, explains Sarah Knight, a senior editor at Simon & Schuster, and can get a paperback ordered in a store that wouldn’t be inclined to carry its hardcover. “New cover art can re-ignite interest from readers who simply passed the book over in hardcover, and can sometimes help get a book displayed in an account that did not previously order the hardcover because the new art is more in line with its customer base.” Some stores, like the big-boxes and airports, also carry far more paperbacks than hardcovers. Getting into those aisles in paperback can have an astronomical effect on sales.
An unscientific look at recent relaunches shows a wide range of books that got full makeovers: Olive Kitteridge, A Visit From the Goon Squad, The Newlyweds, The Language of Flowers, The Song Remains the Same, The Age of Miracles, Arcadia, and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, as did my own this month (The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.)
Books that stayed almost completely the same, plus or minus a review quote and accent color, include Wild, Beautiful Ruins, The Snow Child, The Weird Sisters, The Paris Wife, Maine, The Marriage Plot, The Art of Fielding, The Tiger’s Wife, Rules of Civility, and The Orchardist.
Most interesting are the books that receive the middle-ground treatment, designers flirting with variations on their iconic themes. The Night Circus, The Invisible Bridge, State of Wonder, The Lifeboat, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Tell the Wolves I’m Home, Tigers in Red Weather, and The Buddha in the Attic are all so similar to the original in theme or execution that they’re like a wink to those in the know — and pique the memory of those who have a memory of wanting to read it the first time around.
Some writers become attached to their hardcovers and resist a new look in paperback. Others know it’s their greatest chance of coming out of the gate a second time — same race, fresh horse.
When Jenna Blum’s first novel, Those Who Save Us, came out in hardcover in 2004, Houghton Mifflin put train tracks and barbed wire on the cover. Gorgeous, haunting, and appropriate for a WWII novel, but not exactly “reader-friendly,” Blum recalls being told by one bookseller. The following year, the paperback cover — a girl in a bright red coat in front of a European bakery — telegraphed the novel’s Holocaust-era content without frightening readers away.
“The paperback cover helped save the book from the remainder bins, I suspect,” Blum says.
Armed with her paperback, Jenna went everywhere she was invited, which ended up tallying more than 800 book clubs. Three years later, her book hit the New York Times bestseller list.
“Often the hardcover is the friends-and-family edition, because that’s who buys it, in addition to collectors,” she says. “It’s imperative that a paperback give the novel a second lease on life if the hardcover didn’t reach all its intended audience, and unless you are Gillian Flynn, it probably won’t.”
There’s no hard-and-fast rule about when the paperback should ride in for that second lease. A year to paperback used to be standard, but now a paperback can release earlier — to capitalize on a moderately successful book before it’s forgotten — or later, if a hardcover is still turning a strong profit.
At issue: the moment to reissue, and the message to send.
“Some books slow down at a point, and the paperback is a great opportunity to repromote and reimagine,” says Sheila O’Shea, associate publisher for Broadway and Hogarth paperbacks at the Crown Publishing Group (including, I should add, mine). “The design of a paperback is fascinating, because you have to get it right in a different way than the hardcover. If it’s a book that relates specifically to females you want that accessibility at the table — women drawn in, wondering, Ooh, what’s that about.”
The opportunity to alter the message isn’t just for cover design, but the entire repackaging of the book — display text, reviews put on the jacket, synopses used online, and more. In this way, the paperback is not unlike the movie trailer which, when focus-grouped, can be reshaped to spotlight romantic undertones or a happy ending.
“Often by the time the paperback rolls around, both the author and publicist will have realized where the missed opportunities were for the hardcover, and have a chance to correct that,” says Simon & Schuster’s Sarah Knight. “Once your book has been focus-grouped on the biggest stage — hardcover publication — you get a sense of the qualities that resonate most with people, and maybe those were not the qualities you originally emphasized in hardcover. So you alter the flap copy, you change the cover art to reflect the best response from the ideal readership, and in many cases, the author can prepare original material to speak to that audience.”
Enter programs like P.S. (Harper Collins) and Extra Libris (Crown Trade and Hogarth), with new material in the back such as author interviews, essays, and suggested reading lists.
“We started Extra Libris last spring to create more value in the paperback, to give the author another opportunity to speak to readers. We had been doing research with booksellers and our reps and book club aficionados asking, What would you want in paperbacks? And it’s always extra content,” says Crown’s O’Shea. “Readers are accustomed to being close to the content and to the authors. It’s incumbent on us to have this product to continue the conversation.”
Most of a paperback discussion centers on the tools at a publisher’s disposal, because frankly, so much of a book’s success is about what a publisher can do — from ads in trade and mainstream publications, print and online, to talking up the book in a way that pumps enthusiasm for the relaunch. But the most important piece is how, and whether, they get that stack in the store.
My literary agent Julie Barer swears the key to paperback success is physical placement. “A big piece of that is getting stores (including the increasingly important Costco and Target) to take large orders, and do major co-op. I believe one of the most important things that moves books is that big stack in the front of the store,” she says. “A lot of that piece is paid for and lobbied for by the publisher.”
Most publicists’ opportunities for reviews have come and gone with the hardcover, but not all, says Kathleen Zrelak Carter, a partner with the literary PR firm Goldberg McDuffie. “A main factor for us in deciding whether or not to get involved in a paperback relaunch is the off-the-book-page opportunities we can potentially pursue. This ranges from op-ed pieces to essays and guest blog posts,” she says. “It’s important for authors to think about all the angles in their book, their research and inspiration, but also to think about their expertise outside of being a writer, and how that can be utilized to get exposure.”
What else can authors do to support the paperback launch?
Readings have already been done in the towns where they have most connections, and bookstores don’t typically invite authors to come for a paperback relaunch. But many are, however, more than happy to have relaunching authors join forces with an author visiting for a new release, or participate in a panel of authors whose books touch on a common theme.
And just because a bookstore didn’t stock a book in hardcover doesn’t mean it won’t carry the paperback. Having a friend or fellow author bring a paperback to the attention of their local bookseller, talking up its accolades, can make a difference.
I asked folks smarter than I about branding, and they said the most useful thing for authors receiving a paperback makeover is to get on board with the new cover. That means fronting the new look everywhere: the author website, Facebook page, and Twitter. Change the stationery and business cards too if, like I did, you made them all about a cover that is no longer on the shelf.
“Sometimes a writer can feel, ‘But I liked this cover!’” says Crown’s O’Shea. “It’s important to be flexible about the approach, being open to the idea of reimagining your own work for a broader audience, and using the tools available to digitally promote the book with your publisher.”
More bluntly said, You want to sell books? Get in the game. Your hardcover might have come and gone, but in terms of your book’s rollout, it’s not even halftime yet.
“The paperback is truly a new release, and a smart author will treat it as such,” says Randy Susan Meyers, author The Murderer’s Daughters, her new novel The Comfort Of Lies, and co-author of the publishing-advice book What To Do Before Your Book Launch with book marketer and novelist M.J. Rose. “Make new bookmarks, spruce up your website, and introduce yourself to as many libraries as possible. Bookstores will welcome you, especially when you plan engaging multi-author events. There are opportunities for paperbacks that barely exist for hardcovers, including placement in stores such as Target, Costco, Walmart, and a host of others. Don’t let your paperback launch slip by. For me, as for many, it was when my book broke out.”
The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award has unveiled its massive 2013 longlist. Recall that libraries around the world can nominate books for the prize, and these nominations, taken together, comprise the longlist. This year there are 154 novels on the list, nominated by 120 libraries in 44 countries. All of the books must have been published in English in 2011 (including translations).
Because of the award’s global reach and egalitarian process, it’s always interesting to dig deeper into the longlist. Taken as a whole, the literary tendencies of various countries become evident, and a few titles recur again and again, revealing which books have made a global impact on readers.
Overall favorites: books that were nominated by at least seven libraries.
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (15 libraries representing Australia, Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, England, Germany, Greece, Ireland, the Netherlands, and the United States)
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (9 libraries representing Belgium and the United States)
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (9 libraries representing Canada, Ireland, and the United States)
The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht (9 libraries representing Austria, Ireland, Norway, and the United States)
The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje (7 libraries representing Belgium, Canada, and the United States)
The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst (7 libraries representing Belgium, the Czech Republic, England, Greece, New Zealand, Russia, and the United States)
You can also look at the list and see which books are favorites in different countries. Several books were nominated by multiple libraries in the same country. Here’s a few:
In Canada, Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
In Australia, Autumn Laing by Alex Miller
In New Zealand, The Conductor by Sarah Quigley
There were also several countries with only one library nominating just one or two books. Here are a few of those:
From Iceland, The Map of Time by Félix J. Palma
From India, The Sly Company of People Who Care by Rahul Bhattacharya
From Jamaica, The Goat Woman of Largo Bay by Gillian Royes
From Mexico, My Two Worlds by Sergio Chejfec
From Sweden, The Dewey Decimal System by Nathan Larson
When author Pauls Toutonghi set out to write his first book, he made himself a promise: he would not be another stereotype of “the debut novelist writing about his life.” So Toutonghi penned a “really terrible” World War Two novel followed by a cringe-worthy attempt at experimental fiction — a choose-your-own-adventure rip off. He never wrote in the first person, lest readers assume he was writing about himself. He didn’t sell either book; his career — or lack thereof — was a disaster.
Eventually, Toutonghi gave up on his rigid strategy of avoidance and did what any smart writer does: he let the story and characters lead him, instead of the other way around. Toutonghi is half Latvian, half Egyptian and was raised in the U.S. He sold Red Weather, a coming-of-age story about a 15-year-old Latvian-American boy, followed by Evel Knievel Days, about a young Egyptian-American man in search of his father. Toutonghi wrote both books in the first person. And yet, he considers this less than a complete success: “I was reading Dickens,” he wrote in a recent essay for Salon, “who kept himself away from the page…and I can’t help wondering if anything is lost in the frank disclosures of our modern, first-person, memoir-driven fiction.”
This is perhaps the greatest hang-up of the modern novelist — that fiction is somehow unsophisticated or inherently cliché if it is rooted in the writer’s own life, and that writers should be creative enough to invent entirely new worlds and find drama only in the unfamiliar. None of that is true, of course: Bookstores are full of beautiful novels like Toutonghi’s, and reviewers often celebrate autobiographical debuts. And yet this fear of self-reliance can be limiting, almost crippling.
But if you talk to writers who have taken the autobiographical plunge, you’ll hear an almost universal relief — that writing about yourself allows you to follow your best instincts. Patrick DeWitt, author of The Sisters Brothers, spent a long time writing books that even his wife was unimpressed by. His problem, he decided: He was too afraid of seeming like “the white guy feeling sorry for himself.” But hey: in some way, that’s what he was. “I needed subject matter that was familiar to me if I wanted to go the distance.”
So where does this fear come from? Today’s literary criticism, for one. Laura Miller, who reviews books for Salon, is often turned off by coming-of-age debuts, particularly from writers who have just come of age themselves. She has some words for, say, white girls from Connecticut: “Your book could be really well written,” she says. But “you feel like you’ve read a million of them. It’s the story about this person growing up and learning to live and to love and whose parents get divorced and the mom dies of cancer. It feels like watching an episode of Law and Order — but that’s not really fair, because Law and Order is reliably entertaining.”
Even the New York Times can be dismissive like this. In 2005, when Deborah Solomon wrote about Jonathan Safran Foer, she praised him for avoiding “the usual rites of first-noveldom. He never wrote a tremblingly sensitive account of his adolescence, a novel featuring toxic mothers and passive, gone-to-sleep fathers, a novel abounding with malls and S.U.V.’s, and suburban anomie. Instead, he found his inspiration in the darkly fragmented masterworks of European modernism (Kafka, Joyce, Bruno Schulz)…”
But do not be fooled: Everything Is Illuminated is a wonderful book, both highly innovative and emotionally powerful, but it is also a coming-of-age, semi-autobiographical story about a young white man coming to understand himself. Solomon would never belittle Foer’s book by writing in these exact terms, but when she speaks of “the usual rites of first-noveldom,” she’s not making a neutral statement. She’s making a derogatory one. She’s throwing all of these other books — and which books, by the way? — into the dustbin, castigating them all as navel-gazing and small-minded.
And you wonder what kept Toutonghi and DeWitt from writing about their own lives.
Some writers were fortunate enough to begin writing before reading much literary criticism. “I felt free to take from personal experience,” says Justin Torres, author of the critically acclaimed and heavily autobiographical debut novel We The Animals. After the book, he says, he’d often meet writers who came out of MFA programs and seemed to believe he’s navel-gazing. “You’re mind-gazing,” he corrects. “You’re turning yourself outward, challenging your own assumptions and trying to make meaning out of life. I love Dickens, but thank god not everyone tries to write like him.” (In fact, Laura Miller cuts Torres a break here because We The Animals is based on Torres’ experience growing up gay and underprivileged in upstate New York. “To be crass,” she says, “his book was unusual in the type of people it was about. That was refreshing.”)
When writers ask Torres, “Why write fiction if you want to write about yourself?”, he tells them there’s a magic in translating personal experience into make-believe: “The composites become characters, and the scraps of lived experience morph, so that what you end up with is wholly transformed.”
And the transformation is key. There are a finite number of experiences in the world and the trick is how to present them in a way that is both relatable and unique. It would be idiotic for a young author not to write a book based on her adolescence in Connecticut, if that’s what she’s compelled to write. And if her protagonist has a toxic mother or hangs out at the mall, it would be disingenuous not to include those details. But including them doesn’t necessarily mean you’re painting by numbers or writing a story that is narcissistic. “You just have to ask yourself, ‘What can I bring to literature by writing about this?’” Torres says. To him, authors who write outside their own experience have the exact same challenge as those writing close to the bone: how best to say something valuable. “There’s a lot of people writing formulaic gunslinger Cormac McCarthy fiction,” he says.
The literary world didn’t always dismiss autobiography. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man by James Joyce, The Lover by Marguerite Duras, and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway are all rooted in their authors’ lives. It’s impossible to trace this hang-up back to its origin, but Toutonghi has a suspicion of what triggered it: a resistance, especially prevalent in the MFA world, to the commoditization of fiction.
Literature is an art, of course — though like in any art, there are those who hate to also think of it as a business. Writers who are overwhelmingly focused on craft and style might believe that writing the story of one’s young life is too crass, too obvious, and, god-forbid, too sellable. “Writers see that autobiographical work is more marketable, so many move in that direction,” Toutonghi says. And the purists do the opposite.
Whether the market is really dictating authors’ subject matter is debatable, but it’s certainly true that right now mainstream publishing will unabashedly use an author’s back story to sell his or her book. Two recent debut novels that share similarities with Everything is Illuminated — The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht and There is No One Here Except For All of Us by Ramona Ausubel — have been marketed with the author’s life as a selling point, as if biography is the ultimate “truth” of their stories.
That’s certainly news to emerging authors. “I didn’t realize my life would be the thing I’d be talking about in the interviews,” Torres said. Patrick DeWitt told me that most interviews about his novel Ablutions revolved around parsing the imaginary parts of the book from the real ones. “It became sort of a drag,” he said.
But there’s an upside to this marketing hook, at least for me, as I shopped around my own debut: a semi-autobiographical, prep school novel called The Year of the Gadfly. Editors clearly saw the autobiographical material as a positive thing, and a potential way to market the book. Until then, I’d been so embarrassed about writing from my life that throughout my three-year MFA, I never told anybody where the story originated. I was just another white girl from Connecticut after all (well, actually, Washington DC, but same difference), writing about a young woman coming of age. I spent years feeling like a failure before I’d even started writing, all because I was terrified of producing a cliché. If only I could have written a World War II epic with a chose your own adventure twist.
But I never would have finished writing that sort of book. The Year of the Gadfly took me seven years from conception to publication. And my personal connection to the story was a key part of my stamina. It’s what fueled me to work so tirelessly in pursuit of truly unique characters and a compelling plot. My editor bought my book because the manuscript kept her reading all night. To her, to me, and hopefully to my readers, that’s all that really matters.
In the lead story of Rajesh Parameswaran’s acclaimed first collection, I Am An Executioner, a Bengal tiger escapes from an American zoo and runs amuck. “The Infamous Bengal Ming” is hair-raising, but all I could think of while reading it was: Not one more tiger-escaping-from-zoo story?
Tiger Lit has never been so popular. Look at the number of award-winning fictions in the last decade in which tigers escape from zoos. There’s Rajesh Parameswaran’s story (the collection may well win a prize); Téa Obreht’s Orange Prize-winning The Tiger’s Wife; Rajiv Joseph’s Pulitzer-finalist play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo; Carol Birch’s Booker-shortlisted Jamrach’s Menagerie; Aravind Adiga’s Booker-winner The White Tiger, in which the tiger’s escape is a metaphor for breaking out of the cage of poverty; and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, which also bagged a Booker. And we’re just talking tigers here, not animals-escaping-from-zoo fictions, which would give us Salman Rushdie’s Luka and the Fire of Life, Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife, and no doubt several others.
All kinds of besotted, bombed-out, starving, mangy, metaphoric and misunderstood man-eaters are now on the loose. Not since Humbert Humbert got into his car with a different sort of lust have our literary highways been more unsafe — or more exhilarating. From the roars of approval that have greeted each new work, it would appear that critics and jurors, having tasted blood, can’t get enough of this killer app generously spattered with words like rippling, rolling, muscular, tawny, fiery, flaming, red, pink, orange, carrot, golden, amber, yellow, black, musky, sour, and, of course, stripe-lashed.
The grandfather of modern escapee Tiger Lit is probably the noted Indian writer R. K. Narayan, whose A Tiger for Malgudi, published in 1983, ends with a former circus tiger and a yogi wandering companionably into the hills. Ironically, very few contemporary Indian writers in English would dare to write about tigers today (except metaphorically like Adiga did) for fear of being pummeled for peddling exotica — Adiga got pummeled anyway for peddling poverty — even though the tiger, widely worshiped for its unlimited power and fertility, is about as exotic to India as poverty is. All the fictions mentioned above are essentially Western (Adiga’s apart), despite a dander of Indianness, in that either the writer or the tiger is a person of Indian origin (except for Téa Obreht who is Serbian-American and her tiger Siberian, but whose novel evokes India through its frequent invocations of Kipling’s The Jungle Book). Both Rajesh Parameswaran and Rajiv Joseph are Indian-American, and all the cats are Bengal tigers — Joseph even specifies, with what one hopes is parochial satire, that his cat is from the Sunderbans in “West Bengal”, thereby ruling out any chance of it being Bangladeshi.
The tigers are a mixed bunch ranging from the mangy to the magnificent. Some of them are regular chaps with a healthy disdain for man, others are Blakesian creatures tormented by their dietary preference for juicy children. Indeed, a spiritual subtext runs like spoor through these works, deepening the roots of textual kinship beyond that of a common plot line. Perhaps this braiding of reality and fable into a meaty mysticism is inevitable in stories where tigers are orphans, atheists, metaphors, stowaways and ghosts; where they fall in love with their zoo keeper and are petted by little boys, deaf-mutes and derelicts; flee German, American and NATO bombs; catch flying fish alongside a young boy on a lifeboat; bite the hand that feeds them and, in an aching passage on what war does to caged animals, chomp on their own legs to assuage their hunger.
At the raw, red heart of this literature beats the central question: where do animals fit in the social contract? Do they fit in the deadening comfort of the zoo, where they are fed pounds and pounds of glistening red meat and organs without having to raise a whisker? How do displacement and captivity deform their souls? What happens during war? In every story, the wild and jagged chiaroscuro of the tiger’s stripes is offset against the leaden symmetry of its cage. “Captivity and freedom,” says Parameswaran in an interview to Granta, “are fundamental themes in American history and in literature broadly. Vladimir Nabokov says that Lolita was inspired by the story of an ape in a zoo ‘who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing every charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.” Obreht says that she felt a sneaking sympathy for Kipling’s universally reviled Shere Khan, and that her own tiger was a kind of corrective to that mean, buffoon image. Clearly, she speaks for her pack. When the various tigers break free, and the killings begin, authorial awe is palpable in the treatment of the way this endangered predator discovers its primitive natural instinct, its livid sense of smell, and the unbelievably sweet taste of freshly killed meat.
Despite occasional lapses into sentimentalism and garrulity — tiger spiritualism can get tricky — these imaginative and empathetic fictions go a long way to deepening our understanding of the shared mammalian impulses of love, violence, freedom, and above all, a lust for life.
“The Infamous Bengal Ming” by Rajesh Parameswaran
This story could easily be called “Lost in Translation.” Ming the tiger is in love with his bald, chubby zoo keeper Kitch. But then Kitch mistakes Ming’s love for aggression and smacks him on the nose with a thin, long stick that he always carries but has never ever used before. Hell hath no fury like a tiger scorned. Ming pounces on Kitch, and love bites him like a vampire, “just once, hard and quick” in the neck. But never having hurt a man in his life, Ming is clueless about his own strength and is aghast at what he has done. He tries desperately to lap at Kitch’s neck to stanch the flow, and then, in a spine-tingling introduction of menace, realizes that he can’t stop licking because “Kitch’s blood was delicious.” In that one line, a killer is born. Ming breaks free, and feels a “strange and terrifying euphoria.” The story continues in this darkly comic vein with the bungling, well-meaning tiger trying to help a human cub (even though it smells terrible) by using his giant mouth to provide “a warm, comforting womb for it,” only to be filled with self-loathing when he realizes that he has “stupidly, inadvertently, recklessly suffocated it.” He even roars encouragingly at it from his “hot and humid lungs” but it refuses to stir. Parameswaran’s prose has the tender-savage texture of a rare steak veined with blood, and even though one feels a juddering revulsion when Ming the merciless chomps blissfully on fresh viscera and declares, “I have never felt so much love in all my life,” it also feels utterly and helplessly right.
Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch
Jamrach’s tiger is trigger rather than theme of Birch’s Victorian-era novel. He stars only in the first few pages of the story, when he breaks out of his cage and meets dreamy, young Jaffy Brown. That brief encounter in a filthy London market, during which Jaffy strokes the tiger on the nose and is gently picked up by the scruff of his neck, radically changes his fortunes. By the time Jaffy is carried home to his mother, his head, which a few minutes ago, was smaller than the tiger’s paw, now feels larger that “St. Paul’s dome” and is bursting with tiger love. Not only is this regal tiger-man cub encounter (based on a true event) an inversion of the Shere Khan-Mowgli hate-fest, but Birch gives us with what is easily one of the most eloquent descriptions of a tiger’s face as seen through a boy’s wonder-struck eyes. Her calm, Zen-like paean has resonances of Blake’s “fearful symmetry”, but instead of the dread hand of fear, an intense stirring of awe is what one feels.
Here’s Jaffy talking about his tiger:
The Sun himself came down and walked on earth…This cat was the size of a small horse, solid, massively chested, rippling powerfully about the shoulders. He was gold, and the pattern painted so carefully all over him, so utterly perfect, was the blackest black in the world. His paws were the size of footstools, his chest snow white…He drew me like honey draws a wasp. I had no fear. I came before the godly indifference of his face and looked into his clear yellow eyes. His nose was a slope of downy gold, his nostrils pink and moist as a pup’s. He raised his thick, white dotted lips and smiled, and his whiskers bloomed…Nothing in the world could have prevented me from lifting my hand and stroking the broad warm nap of his nose. Even now I feel how beautiful that touch was. Nothing had ever been so soft and clean…he raised his paw—bigger than my head—and lazily knocked me off my feet. It was like being felled by a cushion.
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph
Rajiv Joseph’s brutal play was inspired by a bizarre but true news report of a tiger in a bombed-out Baghdad zoo biting off the hand of an American soldier. This scathing critique of the Iraq war uses grotesque comedy and magic realism to devastating effect. Joseph’s tiger chomps the right hand of a soldier who is sweetly but stupidly trying to feed it a Slim Jim. The tiger is then shot dead with Uday Hussein’s gold gun which the solider has looted along with a gold toilet seat he plans to flog on eBay. Tiger becomes a mangy, ghetto-mouthed ghost who stalks through the city saying “motherfucker” and gets completely spooked by the “burned and skeletal” animal topiary in Uday Hussein’s private garden, an eerie stand-in for a perverted Eden. “I mean, what the fuck is this supposed to be?…Vegetative beasts?…People. First they throw all the animals in a zoo and then they carve up the bushes to make it look like we never left.”
The tiger hates the fact that his ghost has been condemned to wander this burning city, and thinks of himself as Dante in Hades. In a broader examination of war and man’s affinity for violence, he recalls how he had once devoured a girl and a boy, and wonders if that makes him evil, only to solemnly conclude: “It wasn’t cruel, it was lunch.”
The only reason this damning play managed to be staged on Broadway – which loves bombshells but hates bombs – was because it had the crowd-pulling cat on its cast. Unfortunately, the tiger’s precious monologues are the one off-key note in this otherwise pitch-perfect play. Like the one-handed solider who pays a young Iraqi prostitute to stand behind him and help him jerk off because his new robotic right hand can’t do it and his left hand can’t get the angle right, the tiger’s belabored intellectual masturbation has the same cack-handed feel.
The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht
Obreht’s novel has one main tiger (the titular husband) and two in walk-on roles, though walk-on is a cruel term for Zbogom (Freedom) who, crazed with fear and hunger during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, begins to “eat his own legs, first one then another,” in a bloody metaphor for the fragmentation of the country.
The main tiger is another war victim, but of the German bombs that pounded Belgrade in 1941. By the time he breaks free, he is mangy, missing teeth and a “host for leeches.” The streets are littered with corpses, so he feasts on “the dense watery taste of the bloated dead” until he makes his first kill, a juicy young calf, and is sent into an ecstasy of longing for fresh meat, bovine or human. He begins to haunt a mountain village, and the villagers, who have never seen a tiger before, are convinced that a yellow-eyed devil has descended. The only two who are unafraid are the narrator’s grandfather, then a young boy addicted to Jungle Book, and the butcher’s wife, a teenage, deaf-mute Muslim girl with large eyes and a runny nose, whom the butcher calls bitch and beats to a pulp.
Obreht’s novel is deeply political but curiously nameless — there are no Serbians, Bosnians or Allied Forces, and the country is not identified. The only two outsider-enemies who are identified are the tiger and the Muslim girl. A brief and wondrous kinship ignites between these two outcasts. She steals out at night to feed him meat from the smoke house, and when the butcher mysteriously dies and she turns out to be pregnant, the village is convinced that she has become the tiger’s wife. This fable was inspired by Beauty and the Beast, and Obreht is on the mark when she says that the tiger’s voice “came very naturally to her and felt right.” With crafted, velveteen prose, she evokes the tiger’s mythic presence, his warm, sour smell and “big red, heart clenching and unclenching under the ribs.”
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
Balram Halwai, a desperately poor man from rural India, and the titular character of this unsparingly harsh novel, is employed as the chauffeur of a corrupt feudal family in Delhi. Servant and master represent the two Indias — the India of darkness and the India of light, and Balram is consumed by an almost deranged desire to escape his India, haunted as he is by the memory of his tubercular rickshaw-puller father. Nor is he satisfied with the bones that have been thrown him — a new uniform and regular meals. “In the old days,” he says, “there were one thousand castes and destinies in India. These days there are just two castes: men with big bellies and men with small bellies and only two destinies: eat or get eaten up.”
The predatory analogy recurs when he compares the plight of the poor to hens in a chicken coop. “Hundreds of pale hens and brightly colored roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages…They see the organs of their brothers lying around them. They know they’re next. Yet they do not rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop. The very same thing is done with human beings in this country.”
Balram doesn’t want to be eaten. The law of the jungle says that the only way not to be eaten is to become the eater, the tiger. But not any tiger. He realizes this when he visits the National Zoo in Delhi, where he sees that rare and special beast, a white tiger, pacing restlessly in his pen like “the slowed-down reels of an old black-and-white film.” The tiger, he says, was “hypnotizing himself by walking like this — it was the only way he could tolerate his cage.” Suddenly, the tiger stops, turns and looks him in the eye. In that piercing, epiphanic moment, so potent that he faints with rapture, Balram realizes that he “can’t live the rest of his life in a cage.” If he has to kill to break free, well, the India of Light has gotten away with murder.
The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
A garrulous, funny, and moving fable of faith and survival, which Barack Obama called “an elegant proof of God and the power of storytelling.” But first things first. Martel’s talkative narrator, the Hindu-Muslim-Christian Pi Patel, should get a gold medal for coming up with the most extravagant analogies ever used to describe a tiger’s bits and pieces — including its feces.
Pi’s heightened observations are the result of him being shipwrecked on a lifeboat with a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger called Richard Parker for company. So here goes. The “flame-colored carnivore” has paws larger than “volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica” and a round head larger than the “planet Jupiter;” his mouth is “an enormous pink cave” with teeth like “long yellow stalactites and stalagmites” and a tongue “the size and color of a rubber hot-water bottle;” his ears are “perfect arches;” his feces (which hungry Pi tries to eat and spits out) “a big ball of gulab jamun but with none of the softness;” his mating cry “as rich as gold or honey and as spine-tingling as the depth of an unsafe mine or a thousand angry bees;” and his leaping body “a fleeting, furred rainbow.” Want more? Pi is positively rapturous on his first-mate’s “carrot-orange face:” “The patches of white above the eyes, on the cheeks and around the mouth came off as finishing touches worthy of a Kathakali dancer. The result was a face that looked like the wings of a butterfly and bore an expression vaguely old and Chinese.”
For 227 days, during which he swings between boredom and terror, Pi and the Kathakali-Chinese butterfly coexist. They make it because Pi manages to cow the horribly seasick tiger with shrill blasts from an orange whistle and keep them both alive by catching turtles and flying fish, having cannily divined that the zoo tiger looks upon him as a food provider and will spare him if he continues to provide. As his salt-encrusted body blisters and burns and his clothes fray to shreds, the vegetarian Pi discovers the joy of drinking “the fresh-tasting fluid from the eyes of large fish.” He goes from being sick with fear of Richard Parker to the realization that without him for company, he will lose the will to survive. Eventually, his prayers to Jesus, Mary, Muhammad, and Vishnu are answered and the two mammals are saved. But Pi is devastated, when, without so much as a backward glance Richard Parker slinks into the Mexican jungle. For the rest of his life he is haunted by this cold-hearted desertion, the lack of a proper goodbye. Perhaps Pi might derive some consolation from what the Indian poet Eunice de Souza has to say about Richard Parker’s haughty species in a poem called “Advice to Women:”
if you want to learn to cope with
the otherness of lovers.
Otherness is not always neglect –
Cats return to their litter trays
when they need to.
Don’t cuss out of the window
at their enemies.
That stare of perpetual surprise
in those great green eyes
will teach you
to die alone.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
One is tempted to attach the pop-cultural sobriquet “overnight sensation” to writer Edith Pearlman’s current moment in the sun. (She quotes comedian Danny Kaye when I used the phrase). As it is, Ann Patchett’s introduction to Binocular Vision (Lookout Books), Pearlman’s award-winning story collection and any number of reviews ask the question, “Why have I not heard of this fine writer before?”
Why indeed? Pearlman has published over 250 short fictions and works of non-fiction in all the usual (and some unusual) places, and has been anthologized in Best American Short Stories, New Stories from the South, The Pushcart Prize Collection,and The O. Henry Prize Stories Collection.
My own take on Ms. Pearlman’s fair-weather fame has something to do with the limited attention paid to the practitioners of short fiction — when I grouped her in the company of much heralded short story maestros Alice Munro and William Trevor, Edith blushed (though she did not demur, false modesty is not an attribute she has).
As is the case with my author colloquium, Edith Pearlman and I talked about many things – Tales From Shakespeare, Hermes typewriters, Penelope Fitzgerald, reading Dickens, the task of literature, Aunt Jemima cookie jars, and more.
Robert Birnbaum: What was the first book you remember reading?
RB: How old were you?
EP: I don’t know – eight. You asked about the first book I remember reading — I am sure there were books I read before then. My aunt taught me to read at four. I think we read [Lamb] together.
RB: How did she teach you?
EP: Some kids are ready to read. I don’t think they need much teaching and I was one of those. My grandson is the same way.
RB: Your reading career started in earnest when, at age six?
EP: I suppose so. There were plenty of children’s books around — maybe I read Five Little Peppers and How They Grew or–
RB: After reading Lamb were you a fully engaged reader?
EP: Then I read the plays in order. (Both laugh). No, I think I went back to Mary Poppins. I read Lamb with my aunt.
RB: And when did your writing career start?
EP: It started even earlier. I started a book, I think, at the age of three. And it was called All About Jews.
RB: I have recently come across three writers who began writing really young – Gary Shteyngart wrote a novel when he was six or seven. And Ben Katchor, he started early.
EP: I started to write the book at three, but I didn’t get any further than the title.
RB: Really – writer’s block? (Both laugh).
EP: I think so.
RB: Will you ever revisit that story?
EP: I have revisited it often in interviews.
RB: I mean All About Jews.
EP: Probably not.
RB: Are there generalizations with which one can describe short form fiction writers? For instance, many novelists write short fiction, but it seems that short fiction practitioners don’t often write novels.
EP: It is something that clings to you and that you fall in love with. And though I love to read novels and so do my colleagues, I have no wish to write in the long form. It’s my destiny.
RB: Have you ever tried?
EP: I started to write — actually I finished writing a mystery story with a friend but it wasn’t very good. And no — I don’t think I ever have.
RB: How do you know it wasn’t any good?
EP: Well, nobody took it.
RB: (Laughs). Alright. Writing came to you as an avocation, hobby, and obsession–
EP: It came to me as an occupation. I was making my living as computer programmer, so writing was in those days confined to letters. But my letters were rather long.
RB: Do you still write letters?
EP: I do still.
RB: Hand write?
EP: No, but a typewriter. I write my stories on a typewriter too.
RB: It seems there is a renaissance of interest in typewriters
EP: Yes, somebody told me that.
RB: Well, at least if you pay attention to The New York Times. I have a few — one is a [portable] Hermes 3000, which reportedly was the typewriter of choice for journalists.
EP: I used to use a Hermes. I don’t remember what model it was. It was pretty old.
RB: For some reason, the 3200 comes up in a few stories.
EP: It was a very good typewriter. I used it for years.
RB: Did you study writing anywhere?
EP: I took a course in college and a course or two in my 30s. I did not get an MFA — I took a total of three courses.
RB: In the course of your writing career I read that you had written over 250 stories.
EP: I have written 250 short pieces, not all fiction.
RB: Is there a group of people you talk with about writing?
EP: I have particular friend and colleague whom I meet with every month who is also a writer and we exchange manuscripts. That’s been going on for 25 years.
RB: Any fights?
EP: We have had and we are ruthless with each other. I also have a non-fiction group of four and we meet once a month too.
RB: Which writers do you like to read?
EP: Well, I like best to read Dickens and I read him over and over again. I have been doing that for a long time. So I have probably read each book five or seven times.
RB: Rereading is a great thing. I feel compelled to keep digging in to the newly published. Although I reread 100 Years of Solitude three or four times. The last time I didn’t feel I got anything new and it made me wonder about past judgments about the book.
EP: Well, in Dickens, each time I find something, some turn of phrase, a manipulation of plot or a character I hadn’t appreciated. I read them in order to live in them. My purpose is not to find new things. My purpose is to sink into them.
EP: That was a riff on Magwitch in Great Expectations. I don’t think Dickens appears.
EP: There is a story by Evelyn Waugh, a novel I can’t remember which one it is. The end of it is a about young people and explorers and takes place in Africa — Black Mischief? The hero alone is captured by a crazy, fanatic ex-preacher who lives alone. And is held captive in order that the young man can read over and over and over the novels of Dickens until the old man dies. It’s supposed to be a tragic ending. To me it sounded like a wonderful life.
RB: Is that the extent of your reading, you just read Dickens? (Both laugh).
EP: I thought you asked who I read most or my favorite — at any rate.
RB: You gave me the impression that you aren’t required to read any particular writer.
EP: Right. I don’t feel I have to read anybody. At this point I feel like I’ve probably read enough. Not enough to educate myself — if I stopped reading, which would be a horror, I would probably not be a different person. People are made by the books they read and I think I am finished. That is to say, my making is finished.
RB: Do you think the task of literature is to instruct and entertain?
EP: Exactly. How did you know?
EP: I would put entertain first.
RB: Richard Russo introduced the volume of Best American Stories he guest edited with an amusing anecdote about Isaac Bashevis Singer visiting the campus where Russo was teaching and answering a graduate student’s inquiry with the “task of literature is to instruct and entertain.” Apparently the gathering wanted a more elaborate answer. I think that view is actually taken from Horace.
EP: Oh really?
RB: Is writing short fiction important?
EP: Because literature is important. The project is important.
RB: Do you have any sense that it’s being drowned out?
EP: It is being attacked so to speak. Drowned out isn’t the word I would use. It’s being narrowed by all sorts of things. But it probably always was. We notice the Internet, television, and all these electronic things, but 100 years ago it was affected by farm work. Only the very rich could read.
RB: That was probably the case for most of history — that only a small fraction could benefit from reading and writing.
EP: I don’t know that the percentage is any different now.
RB: The percentage may not be the different but the cause may be and thus the hold it has on our civilization may be different — more tenuous. I work with people who don’t read — 35 year olds who play video games.
EP: Well some time ago they might have been plowing the fields.
RB: There is this meme of the educated working class guy who finishes his shift on the assembly line and goes home and picks up William Faulkner. In fact, that is the story of Southern writers like Larry Brown and William Gay. I don’t think that obtains any more — especially because I don’t think one can be poor with dignity in the 21st century.
EP: People do come home and read no matter what their occupation is.
RB: Working class people have to work hard — frequently taking on second jobs
EP: Why don’t they have that luxury in their off hours?
RB: Besides fatigue, there aren’t a lot of cultural prompts.
EP: Where did people get it before?
RB: This belabors the obvious, but this a world that is far different than what we were raised in.
EP: My husband plays early music — he plays the viola de gamba as an amateur. The early music crowd is eccentric and a world unto itself. And passionate and they don’t write early music — it’s already been written, but they play it and adapt it. It is their overwhelming hobby. I think that’s what reading may become. A small group of people who love it and don’t care if they are thought of as crazy.
RB: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 has seemed prescient to me.
EP: It is. It is.
RB: People who collect guns or Aunt Jemima cookie jars are passionate also. Today it would seem passion — people who like reading and literature passionately began to champion the independent bookstore. That’s okay. I mean, who likes cookie cutter retailers? On the other hand, booksellers were beatified as if they weren’t merchants and capitalists. C’mon! Maybe a few were/are heroic — Truman Metzel of the late Great Expectations in Evanston Ill., or Sylvia Beach in Paris, Vincent McCaffrey in Boston.
EP: And now they have readings. Those of us who want to sell books are delighted.
RB: I understand. Do you go to the annual BEA?
EP: Tell me what it stands for?
RB: It’s a big booksellers trade show.
EP: In Frankfurt?
RB: That’s the Frankfurt Book Fair. This is the big American convocation of the book industry.
EP: Obviously, I don’t go to it since I don’t know what it is.
RB: So, do you go to book related events?
EP: I go to literary events — mostly at colleges. I go to bookstores. I go to festivals. I go where I am asked. If the BEA invited me, I would go.
RB: That does speak to the assumption that writers should help their publishers promote and sell their books.
EP: Yes, right. I do it for my publisher.
RB: Your publisher is blessed to be located in a civilized place like North Carolina (laughs). Wilmington? Chapel Hill?
EP: Wilmington. Do you know him?
RB: Ben? No.
EP: I thought he introduced us.
RB: Oh yeah, by email.
EP: He knows you, knows of you.
RB: I don’t remember the chain of events that brought us together — it must be because you are an overnight sensation (laughs). I must have read about you in Variety.
EP: No you didn’t. I am an overnight sensation of a sort. I have been writing for 40 years and this is my fourth book. And I always had a small following. And I never expected to have any bigger following. I would go to my grave with a small collection, happy. So this somehow happened.
RB: You knew about Ann Patchett’s intro to [Binocular Vision]? [She writes:“My only challenge was to keep from interrupting myself as I read. So often I wanted to stop and say to the audience, ‘Did you hear that? Do you understand how good this is?’”]
EP: That certainly helped.
RB: And there was a review in the LA Times that took the same tone. As did Roxana Robinson. I am happy for you, but that’s a bit of journalistic gimmickry. There are many artists that one can say that about.
EP: Absolutely. I had the luck to be plucked. It was luck. There are writers absolutely as good as I am or better who write their books and don’t get noticed.
RB: I am disturbed by that — I am reluctantly drawn into thinking about the business part of book publishing. Success frequently is serendipitous. I am certain you know the stories of writers who have submitted their books to many publishers and were rejected.
EP: Absolutely. Or 30 rejection letters for a story.
RB: Tibor Fischer’s story is particularly amazing. Of the almost 50 publishers in Britain he was rejected by all except the last one he approached. How do these decisions get made?
EP: By human beings. By fallible human beings.
RB: It would be okay if there were some humility attached to the gate keeping of publishing. Don’t you think?
EP: Yes. And the prize givers ought to be more humble and certainly the writers. In general the writers are — they know how lucky they are.
RB: You start out with a sense that there is a civilizing effect of thinking and writing and telling stories. It made life somehow better. And looking around today, it may be true but the contemplative life seems to be losing the battle.
EP: It improves the individual life, I think. People who read, people who write–
RB: Wouldn’t it be nice if they were to be salvation for all of us? (Laughs).
EP: I would, but I am not a proselytizer.
RB: All right, I scratch that line of thought. I have three favorite stories in Binocular Vision. “The Ministry of Restraint,” in part because I didn’t know what was going to happen — how well do you remember your stories — pretty well?
EP: I think so.
RB: A guy takes a trip to some backwater town, and takes a train back to the capitol and meets a woman. The train is blocked at a tunnel and the passengers have to get off and return to the starting point — as man and the woman walk side by side, their hands come close to touching but do not. And then over the years they meet. In final pages, you learn explicitly that they were lovers once. I was charmed by their initial close proximity which was brought to some fruition much later.
EP: I’m glad you liked it.
RB: And then the heart wrenching tale of a damaged infant. Why did you name her Tess?
EP: I don’t remember. I don’t remember. It has a slightly angelic appeal to me.
RB: Any connection to Thomas Hardy?
EP: No. She wasn’t named after Tess of the D’Ubervilles.
RB: How many Tesses do you know?
EP: Probably none.
RB: It’s an unusual name
EP: Yes, it’s taken from the nickname for Theresa.
RB: Was it a hard story to write?
EP: Yes. I wrote it in pieces. And, of course, it’s told in pieces. And I didn’t write it in the order of its final form.
RB: You chose to have a number of people tell the story.
EP: Only one person speaks in her own voice — that’s the mother. There are probably a half of dozen people who see the child — each of them has a thought that you know about. But it’s the mother who speaks in the first person.
RB: And it was hard to write because?
EP: It dealt with such sad things.
RB: Do you have enough time to emotionally identify with the characters?
EP: Yes, I think I do. I have enough intensity to get involved.
RB: I wonder about the aftermath of writing a novel, which requires a writer to inhabit lives for a period of time. How long does it take to write a story — a year?
EP: No, no. A few months. I suppose in a hardhearted way I forget the sadness of the story I have written. Life goes on and I write the next story.
RB: Are you tempted to write what seems to be a current trend–
EP: Linked stories? Well I have several stories that take place in the same place — in soup kitchen. The stories about the woman who works for the joint distribution committee — there are four about her. It’s not a temptation so much as I am not through with that character, so I want to write another story about them.
RB: Is there one thing that moves you in taking up or developing a story — a name, an image, feeling, a memory?
EP: All of those things. It’s not one — something I dream–
RB: When you begin, do you know what is going to happen?
EP: When I start out, it’s a lot of improvising and I write many pages of improvisation and then I begin to see what story I want to write. I start all over again with the knowledge that I have gotten from the improvisation.
RB: Do you think the piece is finished when the story is written?
EP: Well, I take them to my friend, whom I meet every month, who is ruthless with me and I with her.
RB: Does she use any instruments in her ruthlessness (laughs)?
EP: No, no. It’s all an abuse of the mind. And she either says, “This is almost done” or “Go back.” And I do.
RB: One writer told me that she submits the draft — her editor sends a back a few notes, which enrage her. She writes back to her editor expressing her anger. The editor doesn’t respond. And a few weeks later, the writer decides the editor was right (laughs).
EP: She had to get over her rage and humiliation first.
RB: Really! Where was I?
EP: You were going to tell me the third story you liked.
RB: Right. It was the one entitled “Chance.” It had a Torah study group card game. I enjoyed the Hassidic slant, but I really like that it went somewhere I didn’t see coming. I lost track of why the card game devolved to the temple and presentation ceremony.
EP: It begins with the Torah being delivered, and so I had hoped that the Torah would always be somewhere in the back of the reader’s mind.
RB: Yes, it’s mentioned in the middle of the story. I was distracted by the card game interlude.
EP: Well, the title of the story is “Chance.” That’s what poker is about–
RB: And what the Torah is about (laughs)?
EP: No, that’s what the destruction of Jewry was about. That is to say it was chance that some Jews lived and some died.
RB: The story’s last two lines were quite powerful. Story collections are a delight because despite what is usually a deliberate sequence you can go through and begin with titles that you find appealing. I would never skip around in a novel.
EP: My daughter used to read novels that way. A piece here and a piece there. And I read somewhere that Nabokov wrote his novels that way on 5×8 cards. There is a writer who found or could have found his ideal reader.
RB: Movies are made that way — out of narrative sequence.
EP: When I was a girl, I‘d go to a double feature in the middle and go around for the part I missed. They don’t let you do that now. I tried and was told that the director did mean for you to see it that way.
RB: In the last few years, I have relaxed my personal rule about finishing books that I begin–
EP: Many of my friends have said that [same] thing to me: “Now, if I don’t like it out it goes.”
RB: It means I have shifted more responsibility to the writer. It’s always an issue, the immediacy of our reaction — you may hate a book one day and find it quite readable the next.
EP: Yes. And the things we believe today, we can expect not to believe tomorrow.
RB: (Laughs) If we can remember them.
RB: Do you go back to your work?
EP: Well, I do when I make a collection. Because it’s a chance to improve them. So I go back — when a story is accepted by a magazine, it’s an opportunity to correct things.
RB: You see that as a correction?
EP: Improve? If it then goes into an anthology like Best American, I take an opportunity to correct or revise there — but not much. Not wholesale revision. And then, for a collection of my own, I certainly have an opportunity to change or review.
RB: Where does that impulse come from? At one point you felt the story was finished. Not perfect but done.
EP: I thought it was done to the best of my ability at the time.
RB: And then you got better since you wrote it? (Laughs).
EP: I don’t know that I got better — I got different. I was in an event in which three short stories were read by three actresses which was a lot of fun. I was watching one writer listening to her own story — she said later all she could hear were the infelicities. So I am sure if that story gets re-collected she’ll change some things.
RB: There is also the matter that the creator has expectations of the audience to grasp their creation in a certain way.
EP: No, I don’t feel that way. I agree with the statement, “Trust the tale, not the teller.” My attitude about a story I have written may well be different from a reader’s. And I don’t mind that.
RB: Would you say it should be different?
EP: No, I don’t say that. It can be appreciated in many ways. Or not appreciated.
RB: This recent collection was a collection of stories that already existed?
EP: Thirteen new stories that had not been in a book. They had previously been published in magazines. There were 16 stories that had never been collected.
RB: They had all been previously published somewhere?
EP: Except for one. I can’t remember which one.
RB: Some writers say they will write stories specifically for a book.
EP: No, I don’t do that. I write hoping that a magazine will take it. And I don’t think about a collection until I have quite a few stories.
RB: Why are writers like Alice Munro, William Trevor, and yourself admired in a way that seems different than many writers?
EP: Thank you very much for putting me in that threesome. I was so dazzled by that that I didn’t hear the rest of the question.
RB: (Laughs) I took your breath away. Does it strike you that there’s a craftsmanship assigned to the writers I mentioned. That short fiction writers are looked as artisans?
EP: Yes, we have to have our end not only in mind, but pointed towards, within the story. Like the ones you mentioned.
RB: You seem to travel a lot.
EP: I’m traveling now because–
RB: You’re an overnight sensation?
EP: Did you ever hear Danny Kaye’s comment when he became a success and somebody said he was an overnight sensation? He responded, “Yes, after 20 years in the Borscht Belt.” I’m not an overnight sensation, but at the moment I’m in demand. It won’t last forever, so I am responding to it.
RB: How do you know? Mostly there is a six-week window of attention for books and then goodbye. Your “15 minutes” has lasted since the Spring.
EP: It’s been three months.
RB: That’s a long time.
EP: Yes, yes. It received these very good reviews. But other books are coming along with good reviews.
RB: What’s come out that has really excited reviewers?
EP: The Tiger Wife. I’m trying to think of fiction — I am sure there are others.
RB: I think not. Except for David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King.
EP: What about David Mitchell’s book?
RB: That was a while ago — it just came out in paper.
EP: I bought it in hardcover.
RB: Did you like it?
EP: I haven’t read it.
RB: (Chuckles) You bought the book and haven’t read it.
EP: I have a lot of books I haven’t read.
RB: What are you reading now?
EP: The Worst Journey in the World, which is about Scott’s last expedition. It’s a nice alternative to fiction.
RB: Do you know Andrea Barrett’s The Voyage of the Narwhal? It’s about an Arctic expedition.
EP: I’ll bet its good — I like her short stories. Anthony Doerr got very good reviews.
RB: Sure, but within the usual window of attention. And not a widespread choice. So what’s next? Any polar expeditions?
EP: No, no. I have a grandchild I walk every day. I have lots of friends whom I meet for coffee. Love to go to the movies.
RB: What was the last movie you saw you liked?
EP: I liked The King’s Speech. I usually like movies when I see them. There are very few movies I don’t like.
RB: Meaning you choose carefully?
EP: No, I have a general love of movies. I love the experience.
RB: Do you watch TV?
EP: (Shakes her head).
EP: I don’t have one.
RB: Wow. Isn’t there a whole bunch of culture you are missing?
EP: I am. Yes there is. I do lead a somewhat insulated life without television.
RB: Well, you have missed one of the great TV series — The Wire.
EP: Oh yeah? What’s that about?
RB: Big city life in Baltimore — drugs, unions, corruption, public schools, politics, media. There were five seasons and every season had a different focus. It was a Tolstoyan tale.
EP: I am sure I am missing things that are good. I have a feeling that I’d become addicted if I started watching. And I also have a very good radio.
RB: What do you listen to?
EP: Music mostly. I listen to interesting interviews
RB: What’s it like to be on book tour? Especially when a small amount of people show up for an event — has that happened to you?
EP: It certainly has. This [current] book seems to get a crowd. I read for my other three books a lot and seven people would be there. You do as well as you can for those seven people. I once was on a lineup that included David Sedaris and I was the first reader and he was the second. I had the experience of standing before 500 people reading my story — all of 499 had come for him. It was fun.
RB: That’s show business.
EP: Thank you.
I began The Psychopath Test, by Jon Ronson, on a Sunday afternoon in May flying home from a friend’s wedding and finished it around 2 am that night holed up in my “office,” a 6×8 foot room covered in music equipment, gym clothes, and a decent amount of garbage. My desire to finish Ronson’s gripping book without waking my cat and girlfriend outweighed the putrid stench of my terrible fetid lair. I felt like a psychopath! But I’m not one — I have a sense of humor and experience empathy. Ding ding ding.
In the book, Ronson runs through a 20-item checklist used to diagnose psychopathy, in the process interviewing a mass-murderer, mental patients, daytime talk-show producers, a corporate downsizer, and more. Dark stuff, certainly, but Ronson is able to find hilarity in the truly morbid. When I finished it, I passed it on to my mom and she loved it!
War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, by Chris Hedges, tells of the author’s experiences covering wars for The New York Times. I’m fascinated by how, in an era where more and more things are documented online, much of what actually goes down during war remains hidden from public view. This slim volume goes a good way into explaining the mindsets of those who have lived through war and the journalists who regularly cover it.
I also really enjoyed The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht. It got me thinking a lot about the nature of family generally, and my departed grandfathers specifically, which I don’t do often enough. I can’t wait to read what she writes next.
In terms of purely enjoyable language, I need to recommend The Angel Esmerelda, by Don DeLillo. That man, to this day, knows how to write a spectacular sentence.
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Award season is hitting its stride, and this year’s National Book Award finalists have been announced. For the second year in a row, the fiction finalists number four women versus one male author, and many of the “bigger” literary releases of the year are nowhere to be found. Also for the second year in a row, a New Yorker “20 Under 40” writer is recognized. By virtue of that, Téa Obreht may be the most well-known name of the bunch (our review). A pair of independent or university presses are represented among the fiction finalists, including Bellevue Literary Press, which made its name when Paul Harding’s Tinkers won the 2010 Pulitzer.
In nonfiction, we have the first graphic book in to be recognized in this category.
Update: There was a late addition to the YA finalists list: Chime by Franny Billingsley
Update 2: Due to a mixup by and subsequent pressure from the Foundation, Lauren Myracle has withdrawn Shine from consideration.
Here’s a list of the finalists in all four categories with bonus links and excerpts where available:
The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak (excerpt)
The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht (excerpt)
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka (excerpt)
Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman (excerpt)
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (excerpt)
The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism by Deborah Baker (excerpt)
Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution by Mary Gabriel (excerpt)
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt (excerpt)
Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable (our review)
Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss (excerpt)
Head Off & Split by Nikky Finney
The Chameleon Couch by Yusef Komunyakaa
Double Shadow by Carl Phillips
Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems: 2007-2010 by Adrienne Rich (excerpt)
Devotions by Bruce Smith
Young People’s Literature:
My Name is Not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson
Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai (excerpt)
Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy by Albert Marrin (excerpt)
Shine by Lauren Myracle
Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt (excerpt)